Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Sunday Circle: Guest Blog Missing the Wood for the Trees

Sundaycircle.com regularly opens its blog to a variety of colourful, opinionated and witty individuals from various walks of life...

Dr Neil Falzon, is a human rights lawyer, and former head of the Malta branches of the UNHCR and Amnesty International. Today, he is the Director of aditus foundation, an NGO dedicated to the rights of minority groups.

For more information about aditus, visit their website here.

Last week the Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act was published by the Ministry for Justice, Dialogue and the Family, as a document for public consultation. For the one-month period between 28 August and 30 September everyone, including you, is invited to contribute to the national discussion by commenting on this Cohabitation Bill.

The Bill is pretty straightforward. Nineteen articles in nine pages essentially saying that two unmarried persons living together as a couple will be able to register their relationship in a regime called ‘civil cohabitation partnership’.

Upon registration the couple will be required to regulate personal matters such as maintenance, properties and children, all in a manner enforceable in court by either person in the relationship. Persons in unregistered relationships can also benefit from the Bill’s regime, if existence of their relationship is eventually established in court.

Importantly, the Cohabitation Bill proposes to resolve issues such as hospital visits, medical decisions and bereavement leave by granting the status of ‘next of kin’ to persons in a civil cohabitation partnership. Persons in relationships with non-European Union nationals will be pleased to know that, through a Foreign Affairs Ministry policy, a civil cohabitation partnership will result in the right of entry, stay and employment in Malta.

Yet despite what sounds like an innovative and groundbreaking law, hailed as a first step towards the legal recognition of same-sex couples as valid families, our criticism of the Bill has been an unequivocally harsh one. In our view, the Bill offers same-sex couples very little more than the crumbs granted under today’s legal regime.

Summarily, our position highlights the Bill’s over-emphasis on financial and property matters, whilst ignoring the fact that almost anyone today may regulate most of their affairs with any other person: boyfriend, girlfriend, friend, sibling, flat-mate, etc. Yes, persons ignorant of these possibilities are made vulnerable by their predicament, yet the Cohabitation Bill will not do away with these cases as it will anyway require what is required today: a degree of responsibility, self-regulation and initiative.

But at this stage we want to avoid getting entangled in the Bill’s details, as the exercise runs the risk of missing the wood for the trees. As Malta’s first attempt at embracing same-sex relationships, the Cohabitation Bill fails to eliminate the institutional discrimination present in our system. Instead, it further relegates same-sex couples to a social and legal tier below that enjoyed by the majority, by different-sex couples.

As a human rights organisation, we are firmly grounded in the key principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. What this ultimately translates into is a world view that adamantly refuses to categorise human beings according to innate or core features such as skin colour, age, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

Yet it is a world view that is constantly being challenged, and the Cohabitation Bill is just one of the instruments trying to convince you that it is in fact not only possible, but also perfectly legitimate, to so easily rank various groups of human beings.

Once you’re convinced, it is just a matter of time and imagination till you devise the ranking criteria, realise why you firmly believe this group is socially preferable to that group, and understand how giving those people so much is actually pushing the limits of your generosity.

It is the job of aditus foundation to counter this fragmentation and insist that fundamental human rights are the rightful claim of all persons. That the right to marry, for it’s own sake and for the sake of the rights and obligations it entails, should be open to all persons without ranking, without discrimination.

So go on, write to the Ministry. It won’t take more than two minutes.

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